Students studying outside the library

Professor brings $295,000 NSF grant on cybersecurity

Expert teaches students to hack to learn about rapidly growing field

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Dr. Polyxeni Mountrouidou, center, a cybersecurity expert and hacker, with some of her students, the Wofford Hackers, who are learning about cybersecurity.
2015-11-16

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – When Dr. Polyxeni Mountrouidou, a cybersecurity expert and hacker, started this fall at Wofford College as an assistant professor of computer science she brought with her a three-year, $295,998 National Science Foundation (NSF) education and research grant to engage undergraduates in cybersecurity learning.

In and out of the classroom, Dr. X – as she is popularly known – is teaching her students to hack as a way of understanding cybersecurity, a rapidly growing career field.

As part of the NSF grant, Mountrouidou is working with one of her collaborators, Dr. Xiangyang Li of Johns Hopkins University, to develop learning modules that can be embedded into the general education curriculum.

“What better place than a liberal arts college to help develop students who are aware of the importance of cybersecurity,” Mountrouidou says. “We need people in every discipline who are aware of the gravity and consequences of a network attack. These classes will create more knowledgeable citizens who will understand both the quantitative and qualitative importance of cybersecurity, and I hope this will create a pathway to careers in the rapidly growing field of cybersecurity.” The learning modules can be embedded into technology, public policy, economics, ethics, sociology and psychology classes, Mountrouidou notes. “The collaboration across disciplines that I’ve already seen at Wofford will make this successful,” she says. “The first modules will be ready next fall, and I’ve already found a number of student researchers who will intern with me as part of the grant to develop the modules.”

The approach of the three-year project is two-fold: First, to develop “manageable, stand-alone course modules and labs” to be integrated into the core curriculum at liberal arts colleges such as Wofford and to create two new courses and capstone projects for students motivated to pursue deeper cybersecurity learning, according to Mountrouidou’s NSF grant proposal. Second, the proposal is to use the Global Environment for Network Innovation (GENI) infrastructure in lab and project assignments to offer “an active” cybersecurity learning experience for students.

The project is designed to advance undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in small- to medium-sized liberal arts colleges in a variety of ways, Mountrouidou says. “Our curricular design is able to accommodate students of different levels of computer literacy and interest for future potential STEM careers, and hands-on and well-structured experiments and projects to be implemented on a cloud infrastructure will take off the burden of expensive labs for primarily undergraduate colleges.”

A broader goal of the project is to make an impact on promoting STEM education in liberal arts colleges, she adds. “This integral and coordinated effort to attract and retain liberal arts students in customized and meaningful STEM programs of study is critical to developing a modern cybersecurity workforce.”

Provost Dr. Dennis M. Wiseman says Mountrouidou “brings with her not just a profound knowledge of cybersecurity, but also energy and enthusiasm for teaching undergraduates. I look forward to seeing how this will enhance the academic experience at Wofford.”

Beyond the work involved in the NSF project, Mountrouidou is making an impact on Wofford students in other ways.

The Athens, Greece, native has started weekly meetings for students interested in learning more about cybersecurity, how to defend and how to attack. The group of fledgling hackers calls themselves “Revenge of the Terriers,” and they competed in the college’s first hackathon this semester.

“I’m amazed at the Wofford students,” Mountrouidou says. “They come after 5 o’clock and spend hours learning the basics of cybersecurity.”

She says preparing for and participating in hacking competitions helps students learn how to analyze and solve problems. They must be able to think like hackers, plan defense strategies, write code, and most importantly, make good, principled decisions.

“The first thing we talk about are the ethical issues,” Mountrouidou says. “We want to win the hackathon, but we will follow the rules of the contest — no copying flags (awarded after successful completion of a challenge) and no stealing flags from other competitors.”

Mountrouidou says it’s critical that students learn that cyber theft is a crime and that there are severe consequences for the offense. “Students who can defend against cybersecurity threats will be able to write their ticket upon graduation.”

Mountrouidou also picked up the mentoring of women in computer science from her predecessor, Dr. Angela Shiflet, retired Larry Hearn McCalla Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, who recommended Mountrouidou apply for the job at Wofford. Mountrouidou has big plans for the women attending her monthly lunches.

“I’ve already given our women in computer science information about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing,” Mountrouidou say. “It’s a conference that fosters the success of women in the field.” The students must prepare an essay, request recommendations and complete an application. She says she would love to take a group of 10 Wofford women to the next conference.

“This is something that women can be so successful at,” she says. “Mentoring women interested in the field is dear to me. The profession is unbalanced. Only about 10 percent of the computer scientists in the field are women. That can be discouraging. I want women to see that they belong here.”

Mountrouidou says that the next lunch will focus on successes and failures. She’s shared the story of her successful NSF cybersecurity application, and the embarrassment she felt at getting a C in her first computer science class.

Yukun Peng (Wofford class of 2016), a computer science major from Beijing, China, is already inspired. She’s applying to graduate school in game design and says that being a Wofford hacker and involved in the women in computer science lunches already has been beneficial.

“Having a background in network security is one of things that gaming graduate schools look at,” says Peng. “And it’s fun!”

Mountrouidou couldn’t be happier.

“I always loved breaking things to see how they worked, solving puzzles and being a detective,” says Mountrouidou, who got into programming in high school because she wanted to be a hacker. “Now I’m teaching students about cryptography and network security, how to find back doors and crack passwords. This is important work, and the students who excel will be recruited by the NSA, DOD and tech companies around the world.”